The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Put Mithras back in Christmas

December 6, 2005

Another year, another faux controversy about the secular humanists, liberal atheists, and assorted no-goodniks stealing Christmas from the righteous and god-faring. Their methods haven’t changed much from last year: preventing municipalities from establishing religious icons on public property without equal time for other religious displays and, most shockingly of all, forcing the employess of megacorporations to say “Happy Holidays!” rather than “Merry Christmas!”

I’m actually quite sympathetic to the fundamental argument to keep “Christ in Christmas.” The holiday is fun – and, as I experienced first-hand in Denmark a few years ago, absolutely essential to combatting Seasonal Affective Disorder – but the orgy of consumerism that accompanies it has long since passed the threshold of “no return” for an event purportedly celebrating the birth of humanity’s lord and savior. Given that, it is pretty hard to take seriously anyone who thinks that his religious beliefs are under assault because the checkout clerk at the local Best Buy wished him “Happy Holidays” after he purchased that $2K plasma television for the family.

This year I’m particularly annoyed. Bill O’Reilly’s beating the drums again, only this time he’s mixed in a little Father Coughlin imitation for our viewing pleasure.

In a bit of serendipity, however, I received the following exchange on H-Albion (the initial emailer is an interested non-academic, the response is from Boyd Berry of Virginia Commonwealth University):

I am interested in how some well-off religiously moderate ancestors who migrated from Somerset around 1620 to what became the Massachusetts Bay Colony in Massachusetts, and others who came from Kent and Suffolk to help found Sudbury Massachusetts, would have celebrated Christmas.

Well, I think you are probably looking for diaries, which I can’t help you with.

I can say that by 1620, there was criticism that the Church had appropriated pagan holidays. You might use the subject volumes of Robert Watt’s Bibliotheca Britannica (done sometime around 1820) for Christmas Holidays, and biblical texts of sermons which might make an opening for a Christmas sermon. Your people would probably have been severe about Xmas.

Incidentally, Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide in 1647, and in Process of Speech I analyzed a sermon preached on Dec. 25 celebrating that ban. [emphasis added]

I know O’Reilly himself is Catholic, but it does bear remembering how many important Protestant theologians – not to mention early British settlers – frowned upon Christmas with its pagan syncretism and crass partying (which, now that I think about it, explains why I enjoyed Yule in Denmark so much).

Well, anyway, let’s hop on the time machine back to 2004 and see what I had to say on the subject then…

I suppose it was inevitable: the diffusion of the “defend Christmas” norm, followed by the diffusion of the “annoyed liberal blogger response.”

So let me add my voice to the chorus: I really don’t get this. I mean, I kind of do. But I don’t. Not really. I suppose I should explain.

If I were a Protestant Christian, particularly one whose beliefs were influenced by most of the major strands of non-Anglican Protestantism, I’d object to the whole Saint-who-delivers-presents folklore in the first place. Martin Luther, progenitor of the Protestant Reformation, certainly didn’t approve of the whole deal. There’s the pagan tree symbolism, the winter-solstice festival of lights, and so forth. You know: Yule. The fact that the selection of the date was designed to undermine the Mithraic cult wouldn’t help very much (there’s a great section in Neil Gaimon’s American Gods discussing poor Mithras’ loss of prestige).

Now, if this weren’t a concern – say, I was Catholic or Anglican – I’d be pretty appalled by the current state of the holy day, e.g., big corporations trying to convince us that happiness comes from the exchange of material possessions (even more so if they’re on sale) and Christmas specials with little particular Christian content. I’d feel the same way, I imagine, if I wasn’t to hip on old Saint Nicholas, but still saw Christmas as an important part of my faith.

Clearly, the flap over the “liberal assault on Christmas” smacks of political gimmickry. But it is resonance (subscription required) is not so easily dismissed. The state of Christmas is not an isolated issue; it taps into the fact that Christians of a number of different flavors do have some reason to feel their way of life is under siege. Public opinion data suggests that acceptance of homosexuality, and even of gay marriage, rises steadily among younger respondents to surveys. If the “cultural war” is one of attrition fought on many fronts, then that can’t be good news for cultural conservatives. Moreover, If one believes abortion is murder, one should be outraged by its current legality. But beyond these hot-button issues, we live in a consumerist, hedonist culture in which even many self-proclaimed champions of family values turn out to be, at their best, adulterous and, at their worst, living lives of total depravity.

Now, why don’t I get this? Let me start with a quick biographical note. I am Jewish in the “ethnic” sense – I am descendent from a presumably long line of eastern European Jews, my parents are Jewish, and I have an almost intuitive understanding of guilt. I briefly flirted with the religious side of Judaism, but, well, the fact that my wife was raised Methodist and we have been happily married for nearly a decade should indicate how far that went. From this perspective, I really have trouble with the notion that “There’s one group of people who get bullied all the time, and that’s Christians,” he said. “I know what it is like to be bullied. It is apartheid in reverse — the majority is being bullied by the minority.” It is not that I feel in any way oppressed, but the United States is an overwhelmingly Christian country in its culture and political discourse. Americans are some of the most observant people in the world. We have incredibly high rates of Church attendance. Christian religious broadcasting dominates AM radio in many parts of the country. No politician has ever been elected by trumpeting his agnosticism or atheism.

In my view, the current struggle for a more permissive interpretation of the Establishment Clause is fundamentally about what might be called “the politics of identity expression.” When the state (or, for that matter, politicians) engage in symbolic acts that affirm the “Christian nature” of American culture and institutions, it provides social goods in terms of status and recognition to those Christians who feel under siege. I understand this impulse, but it imposes reciprocal burdens on religious minorities. It necessarily diminishes their status and recognition in public institutions. If recognition is, as some philosophers suggest, of central importance to political life, we may be facing a problem with no obvious solution.

What I’d like to be able to do, I suppose, is think about the Establishment Clause without focusing on the politics of identity expression. This is a difficult thing to do. The politics of identity have become central to American civil and political life. Conservative Christians are now, consciously or unconsciously, using modes of argument quite similar to those advanced by the left during the struggles over multiculturalism, ethnic studies, and the like. Nevertheless, the basic case for keeping the state and religion as distinct as possible is pragmatic. As Tocqueville argued in Democracy in America, the separation of the state from religion is important to the preservation of democracy. Not because religion is “undemocratic,” but because religious associations play a key role in demcoratic society. That role, however, becomes increasingly compromised the more the state gets involved with religion.

.. any alliance with any political power whatsoever is bound to be burdensome for religion. It does not need their support in oder to live, and in serving them it may die. …

The American clergy were the first to perceive this truth and to act in conformity with it. They saw that they would have to give up religious influence if they wanted to acquire political power, and they preferred to lose the support of authority rather than to share its vicissitudes. In America religion is less powerful than it has been at certain times and among certain people, but its influence is more lasting. It restricts itself to its own resources, of which no one can deprive it; it functions in one sphere only, but it pervades and dominates there without effort. ….

Unbelievers in Europe attack Christians more as political than as religious enemies; they hate the faith as opinion of a party much more than as mistaken belief, and they reject the clergy less because they are representatives of God than because they are friends of authority. ….

European Christianity has allowed itself to be intimately united with the powers of this world. Now that these powers are falling, it is as if it were buried under their ruins. A living being has been tied to the dead; cut the bonds holding it and it will arise.

Although Western Europe did not secularize until after the Second World War, when it did it did so with a speed and depth that should frighten religious Americans. Religion in the United States, as I have mentioned, continues to show tremendous depth and strength.

To Christian Conservatives, I say: be careful what you wish for.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.